Bose SoundLink

I’m a roadie who gets to visit “home” on the weekends. My fairly new Bose SoundLink, though, let’s me turn any hotel room into a thoroughly music-infused space. That helps a lot…

This thing has both Bluetooth and a 3.5mm stereo jack on the back. It’s pretty small, has a good battery and a wall-wart transformer (the package I got from Costco also has a cigarette-lighter cord).

It’s not a lightweight little thing and it really packs a punch. It’s really easy to have it (way) too loud in a hotel room. Try that, Jambox.

I plug in my Sansa Clip. Or I play stuff off my phone. Or it plays audio from my tablet, or “replaces” the crappy speakers on my laptop. The sound is surprisingly good at every volume level, and as I said, it can get really loud if you want it to be.

And it’s no trick to operate, it’s very easy to set up.

(Now if I can just find a player that takes microSDXC cards and had Bluetooth too!)

For me, this SoundLink replaces something major from home that I’ve been missing.

-- Wayne Ruffner  

Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II
$299

Available from Amazon



Electronic Wind Instrument

As an amateur musician living in a small house, I can’t always pick up my saxophone or flute when I have the urge to make music. Nighttime is off limits, and even during the day I can’t always find a time when I won’t be disturbing the rest of the household. We have a digital piano that I can use with headphones or a computer, but as a wind player I find the keyboard too limiting.

About three years ago, I solved this problem by buying an Akai EWI USB electronic wind instrument. It lets me play quietly, or even silently, while providing more ways to make music than would be practical with real instruments. You hold it like a clarinet or saxophone, touching key pads placed in a similar arrangement to the keys of a real instrument, and blow into a mouthpiece that senses the pressure of your breath. It produces no sound of its own. Instead, you plug it into a computer and choose from dozens of wind, brass, and string instruments to mimic. Add a pair of headphones, and you have a self-contained music studio you can use any time of day or night. You can practice tunes and scales, play along with recordings, and even create your own compositions and arrangements using multiple instruments.

The instrument selection provided by the Akai software includes a full range of woodwinds, brass, and orchestral strings, along with some pitched percussion (like xylophone and glockenspiel) and an assortment of unique synthesizer sounds. The selection includes all the sizes of saxophones, clarinets, brass, double reeds, flutes, and viols. Part of the fun of the EWI is getting to play instruments that you’ve never touched in real life. For instance, I spend a lot of time using the violin sound, and noodling around on bass clarinet or tuba is a blast. The instrument sounds are quite good. The ability to control the volume with your breath adds a natural expressiveness that makes up for the synthetic timbre of some of the instruments. A casual listener might not realize she is hearing an electronic instrument, particularly the clarinets and violin/cello/bass voices.

The EWI’s controls strike a balance between simplicity and realism. Unlike a real instrument, it’s “keys” don’t move. Instead, they are raised metal pads that sense when you are touching them. The layout of the keys closely matches that of a saxophone, though you can configure it to use fingerings that are more similar to a flute, oboe, or even a trumpet. You control the octave using a set of four rollers under your left thumb that give the EWI a five-octave range. Another pair of sensors allows you to bend notes up or down with your left thumb. The mouthpiece, in addition to sensing your breath, also senses the pressure of your bite, providing a way to add vibrato to your tone.

The lack of moving parts makes it extremely reliable, but to your fingers it’s more like playing a keyless instrument like a recorder than a saxophone. It doesn’t take long to get used to once you’ve chosen a fingering configuration.

The real power of the EWI USB and the Akai software comes when you combine them with a music application like GarageBand. The Akai software can act as a plug-in to Garage Band and other software. You can record multiple tracks using different instrument voices. This has greatly expanded my musical capabilities, and I’m now experimenting with creating my own band arrangements.

The EWI USB is not without its flaws. While I’ve had no problems with the Akai software on Macintosh, I’ve seen some pretty severe complaints from Windows users. Users have posted their workarounds and solutions for the Windows problems on the web, but Windows users might want to buy from a retailer with a good reputation for support (like Patchman music). Though it’s a MIDI instrument, it doesn’t have a MIDI port; you have to plug it into a computer. Akai’s documentation is a bit sparse, and doesn’t provide much information on how to use the EWI with other software. While, in principle, the EWI can be used to control any software that accepts MIDI input, I’ve had only limited success with Garage Band’s own (non-Akai) instrument voices. This has more to do with Garage Band’s limitations than EWI’s, but Akai could have done a better job explaining what you can and can’t do with the EWI’s many configuration options. Another problem is that some of the instrument voices sound a bit artificial. Even with breath control, the EWI can’t mimic the variety of sounds that a good player gets out of a real saxophone or trumpet. I’ve found that using Garage Band’s matrix reverb filter (which models the acoustics of real rooms) does a lot to increase the realism of the EWI sounds.

Akai makes a somewhat more advanced version, the EWI4000S, that has a MIDI port and its own built-in sound generator. This might be a better option than the EWI USB if you want to use it in a live performance. Yamaha also makes an advanced wind controller that has moving keys and a mouthpiece that can more closely mimic reed instruments. Both these options are at least twice as expensive as the EWI USB, and may require additional hardware and software instrument “patches” (instrument voices) to match those provided with the EWI USB.

The Akai EWI USB comes with a mouthpiece cap, neck strap, USB cable, and software for Macintosh and Windows computers.

-- Tom Sackett  

Akai EWI USB Electronic Wind Instrument
$299

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Akai



Trupulse Bluetooth Transducer Speaker

I received a TruPulse Bluetooth Transducer Speaker for Christmas, and have been blown away by the portability and sound quality. This little device connects to a sound source via BlueTooth or the included line-in cable, and turns any surface into a speaker through transduction. Tables, boxes, walls – anything you can set it on.

This technology has been around for a while, finding a home in outdoor audio. What makes the TruPulse a Cool Tool is that it’s so portable. I can toss this in the bag with my phone and it’s less cumbersome than a set of speakers. I can pair it with my laptop on the dresser, and set the speaker on my nightstand to have the audio closer to me. It also gets loud enough to serve your livingroom from the coffee table.

I could see this being handy for the laptop road warrior in presentations, since you might have access to a projector, but speakers may be hard to come by.

-- Brian Schaefer  

[Note: The DIY electronics resource Sparkfun sells a simple transducer speaker kit for those interested in a DIY option.--OH]

Trupulse Bluetooth Speaker
$75

Available from and manufactured by Tru Pulse



C. Crane FM Transmitter II

The C. Crane FM Transmitter II takes a signal from an audio source such as an iPod, CD player or computer, and broadcasts it in FM, where it can be picked up by any FM radio within its range of up to 100-feet.

That simple description belies its versatility. I use it as a poor man’s Sonos: I broadcast music and podcasts from my computer to any radio in the house. I am not limited in the devices I use to hear the broadcast; I use a few Boston Acoustics Solo tabletop radios, but any radio would work, even a walkman-type device. Setup is fool-proof; just tune the radio to the proper frequency. Other people use it to watch movies without disturbing other people in the room. They just use an FM radio like the one in many iPods, and earbuds. Musicians use them for stage performance. Etc.

But there are other FM transmitters. This one stands out in a few ways. It has excellent audio quality, as good as you can get with FM. That is especially apparent in the bass frequencies. The limiting factor for your sound will almost certainly be your receiving radio or earbuds.

You can choose any broadcast frequency from 88.3 to 107.7 MHz, so are nearly guaranteed to find a clear frequency for your location. (The “digital” in the name refers to the digital display of the transmitting frequency, nothing else).

It has adjustable gain, so it will amplify even weak signals to the maximum it can handle (an LED indicator tells you when you are overloading it). It runs off AA batteries or its own wall transformer.

It can be very easily modified (by opening the case and turning a little knob) to increase its power dramatically. You can easily find instructions on the web. This is strongly recommended; the only critical reviews are from people who were disappointed with is range out of the box. That is caused by FCC regulations that limit the power allowed in all such devices. The modification will violate those regulations of course, but drastically increase the transmitter’s range.

It is cheap. Truly comparable transmitters cost a few hundred dollars. The version II is cheaper and has better audio quality than the original. And C. Crane occasionally has one that has been returned for even less.

There is basically nothing wrong with this device, and there is nothing better for the price.

-- Karl Chwe  

C. Crane FM Transmitter 2
$55

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by C. Crane



Sonos

Audio over the internet isn’t new, but it really is barely tolerable if it’s not coming out of good speakers with power behind them. These days there are lots of ways to accomplish this, but one reigns supreme. Sonos!

Sonos has already been reviewed in Cool Tools, but it deserves a revisit, especially considering the evolution of new features & configurations possible.

A Sonos “zone” is a single Sonos Box that features both an internal amplifier for direct connection to proper stereo speakers, as well as line-level outputs to your otherwise superb existing stereo system.  You can also use a single Sonos speaker as a mono output, or pair two speakers that, when synchronized, produce a stereo output. Oh, and there’s also a Sonos subwoofer available. A Sonos system can operate up to 32 wirelessly interconnected zones. Each zone can operate independently, or each can be tied to operate synchronously with other zones.

It can use sources as diverse as a line in (stereo, radio, computer, DVD/BluRay, TV, whatever), to local digitally stored content from a laptop, NAS, server, whatever, available to a single Sonos zone box (or bridge) which needs to be Ethernet cabled to the LAN (after which it’ll serve the whole Sonos system). Or you can stream things from Pandora, Spotify, XM, etc.

As far as control, you can use the optional handheld wireless controller (color display, etc), a computer based interface, or apps for most/all smartphones and tablets.

While Sonos may seem pricey at first, once it’s up and running it seems like the best bargain ever. When I’m at home I listen to WXPN (Philadelphia) or WFUV (NYC) almost exclusively – the best, I think, of the remaining old-style college radio stations. There’s a great station from Uganda that is terrific, too, in a wholly different way. And there are almost too many different sources to play with, so happy hunting.

My Sonos system may not actually be the best thing I’ve ever owned, but it always pops into my head as just that: The Best Thing Ever.

-- Wayne Ruffner  

Sonos Play 3
$300
Available from Amazon

Sonos Play 5
$400
Available from Amazon

Sonos CONNECT:AMP
$500
Amazon

Sonos Bridge
$50
Amazon

Manufactured by Sonos

We first reviewed Sonos five years ago, and it remains one of the best networked home audio system available today. --OH



Planet Waves Tune Up

I’ve been using this tuner on my iPhone for about a year now. It’s a great, accurate and very cheap guitar tuner. I’ve tried other tuner apps, but they were not as accurate as this one. The free Gibson Learn & Master-app, which includes a chromatic tuner, is not usable because it is far from being accurate. I also tried another free app called Acoustic Guitar which again doesn’t work because you have to rely on your ears to tune your guitar.

In practice I’ve compared Tune Up to my standalone Boss TU12 guitar tuner. I use the TuneUp’s ‘needle’-display, which is much like the TU12′s display, and found the output to be the same: both are accurate, but the iPhone’s built-in microphone is much more sensitive than the TU12′s built-in mic, so it much easier to tune up an unplugged electric guitar with the TuneUp app. For the TU12 to get a good result you have to hit the (unplugged) string real hard, as for TuneUp, it immediately responds, so TuneUp output is quicker dispayed and it is also easier to tune because when your tone is sharp or flat it is shown in the display, as for instance ‘A#’ as the TU12 only shows a red triangle on the tight if the tone is sharp and a red triangle on the left if it’s flat. Another advantage for the TuneUp app over the TU12 is that if you forget to turn off the TU12, your 9V battery is sucked dry even when you put it aside.

The biggest disadvantage of the TuneUp-app is that for unplugged electric guitars it is quite unusable in noisy environments as it will pickup too many surround sounds. This is one of the main reasons why I’m not selling my TU12 as I rely on the ability to plug in the electric guitar directly into the tuner. Also, for adjusting the bridge-saddles I still rely on the TU12, with the guitar directly plugged in the TU12. But that’s because I still have not adjusted a guitars bridge setup using the iPhone-app. Maybe I will in the near future…

With Tune Up I can always tune a guitar everywhere I go, and now most of the time I can leave my good old ‘bulky’ Boss TU12 at home!

-- Douwe Rijpstra  

Planet Waves Tune Up
iOS
$1

Available from iTunes Store

Produced by Planet Waves



Pilot’s BlueTooth Noise Control Headset

pilots bluetooth headset.jpg

I work in a lot of data centers where the noise can be almost intolerable. My increasing tinnitus is probably a symptom of being in those places so much, and troubleshooting via cell phone is almost impossible, definitely supremely frustrating, with almost every headset I’ve tried, wired or BT.

So I found a Pilot’s-type headset with full Bluetooth profiles. It’s the Millennium Series with inline BluLink Adapter from Pilot-USA.

This thing is far from cheap and, of course, makes me look like a complete doof. But it plays music from my cell with terrific clarity and also lets me converse as if we’re in a private library. The BT implementation is excellent and gives the full features their due.

(Though my new phone – a Nexus S – currently won’t recognize the phone profile! I’m hoping ICS brings it to working status with this phone, so, fair warning!)

As expensive as this is, it’s about half the price of the Lightspeed Zulu or Bose A20 headsets. If you need this level of clarity, it’s a deal.

This headset provides by far the best phone experience I’ve had yet in seriously noisy environments.

-- Wayne Ruffner  

Pilot PA-2170BLU Bluetooth Headset
$410

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Pilot USA



Wind Chimes: Design and Construction

wind-chimes-2.jpeg

Make your own. Not those tinny flea market varieties, but large striking sonorous chimes tuned in all manner of unusual styles. (Listen to samples on the book’s website or included CD). There are several dozen unusual ways to tune the chimes. All tunings are fairly mathematical, which is the core of this book, but not difficult to execute with hardware-store tubing. My son and I used this short but very explicit manual to create a large copper pipe one that emits a lovely melody in the breeze. The bigger the better. (The bigger the more wind they need, too.) This guide is a very practical way to experience the math of music and the beauty of alternative music systems.

Setting up the hanging strings at the correct spacing.
Windchime2.jpg

Our copper chime hanging in the cherry tree.
windchime.jpg

-- KK  

Wind Chimes: Design and Construction
Bart Hopkin
2005, 68 pages
$15

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

chime spacing.jpg

chime rope.jpg




Howard Leight Sync Earmuffs

howard leight.jpeg

For years I have worn the previously reviewed Peltor AM/FM Ear Muffs while out mowing the lawn, or when working around loud noises. I was routinely disappointed by their lousy reception, but put up with it as I couldn’t find anything better for the price that still provided hearing protection. Recently, my stepson (Disclosure: This editor is his stepson.–OH) gave me a pair of the Howard Leight Sync Stereo Earmuffs to try out, and I haven’t used my Peltor muffs since.

The Sync Earmuffs do not have AM/FM reception, but instead rely on a 3.5 mm auxiliary input cable like you would find in a car. They come with an appropriately sized mini-to-mini cable that I plug into my iPhone (which is where you also control the volume). Now instead of listening to poor AM/FM reception, I can listen to the BBC America app, my music library, podcasts, and, if I really wanted to, one of the many available FM/AM emulators from the App Store.

As far as hearing protection, the Sync Earmuffs have a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of 25, which is similar to the rating for the pair from Peltor. I have found that they provide the same amount of protection. They are also lighter, don’t require batteries, and are roughly a third the cost of the Peltor pair.

The best part is that I no longer miss phone calls when I’m out on the tractor (which had been a serious problem), and am no longer startled when my wife shows up behind me screaming her head off trying to get my attention. I don’t even have to take the headphones off to take the call, I simply speak into the microphone on the phone and the sound gets ported through my headphones.

-- Rick True  

[For those interested in learning more about sound attenuation, I found this PDF explaining how they calculate Noise Reduction Ratings to be fascinatingly complex.--OH]

Howard Leight Sync Stereo Earmuffs
$22

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Howard Leight



Sangean AM/FM Pocket Radio

pocket AM radio.jpeg

This Sangean pocket radio costs a lot more (4x) than the smallest available iterations from Sony and Panasonic, but it’s well worth the extra cash for two reasons. The first is that it picks up AM way better than anything in its size/weight class, both in terms of the number of stations and, equally important, the strength and clarity of the signals. And secondly, its size, 3.5″ x 2″ x 0.6″ (measured by me) and weight, 2.05 oz. on my postal scale.

Note that there’s no speaker so you have to use earphones (they come with a pair). Finally, its form factor is remarkably similar to that of the long defunct iPod mini. Now I can listen without static on AM as Larry, Sonny and Sam call the woeful Redskins’ games.

-- Joe Stirt  

Sangean DT-180 AM / FM Pocket Receiver
$36

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Sangean